Brendan McCormack is President of Institute of Technology, Sligo, the largest provider of higher education in the North-West of Ireland. IT Sligo is the recognised leader in the provision of courses delivered through online/blended learning and the enrolments are growing at a rate of 20% year on year. Using this approach, thousands of people now have access to higher education courses who otherwise would not be able to gain 3rd level qualifications. While there is global participation on these programmes, there is a particular focus on upskilling the workforce in the North-West of Ireland.
Brendan comes from an engineering background and has worked with the medical devices industry for many years. His interest in this field stems from spending time in hospital and having worn a prosthetic limb since birth. He holds degrees from UCD, Ireland (BE 1980 and PhD 1997) and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, USA (MA, Biomechanics). He is a keen gardener and beekeeper.
Can leadership be taught? If so, how?
Yes and no. The principles of leadership can be taught and the relative roles of people in the organisation can be taught. So we are taught that a good leader will listen to others both inside and outside the organisation, and takes advice on how to behave and respond, particularly from those who are effective leaders themselves. A good leader makes decisions. A good leader maintains a longer-term vision, beyond the current demands of the business, providing the necessary motivation and encouragement to their employees during the tough times. In my experience, the actual leadership style and role that one uses depends on the nature of the organisation and where the organisation is at when you become the leader. Effective leaders will also learn through the experience of dealing with people and with challenging matters in a particular situation – this is because there is no set formula for leadership, it requires a different mix of skills depending on where the organisation is at. Of course, some people have the personality for leadership although in some cases this is a perception that does not always carry through to their effectiveness as a leader (not all sports team captains make good company CEOs). Others, who do not seem to be ‘born leaders’ blossom when they are given the opportunity.
What do you think is the difference between management and leadership?
The role of managers is primarily operationally focused and they deliver the strategic objectives of the organisation and carry out the day-to-day management of staff and other resources to bring that about. A leader has a strategic perspective on the direction and goals of the organisation and works with the management team on their roles and targets to achieve these. For the leader, this requires a significant level of scanning the external environment to understand what is happening in the sector. So, a leader might change the direction and the goals, based on a perspective of where the sector is going, while the managers need to understand that their primary role is to enact the change necessary to re-orientate the organisation.
The world around us is changing faster than at any time in human history and we need more leaders to emerge. How do we make this happen?
Within the organisation, it is by working with the management team to encourage the next generation of leaders. This means knowing the team sufficiently to identify strengths and weaknesses and providing the necessary supports for managers to build up their abilities with leadership skills. A good leader will expose managers to leadership situations to support them to develop their abilities. From a societal perspective, we need to cultivate in children the qualities of a leader and to encourage them to take leadership roles. Every child should be afforded this early learning opportunity so that they can gain confidence in their own abilities, and to encourage them to reach their full potential.
What is the one mistake you witness leaders making more frequently than others?
Not listening to others. Certainly, in the public sector, communication and consultation are essential to getting the job done. Employees expect to be listened to and to hear responses to their feedback. Without this, it is very difficult to bring change about.
What advice would you give to someone dealing with a high-pressure situation in their life or work?
Sometimes high workloads are unavoidable. It is important to prioritise work and the delegate properly. This allows you to focus on the leadership issues and not to get unnecessarily drawn into management tasks. Make sure you have a good team that will accept delegation and can effectively get the job done without the need to look over their shoulder. Managing the daily work schedule as a leader is also important – yes, of course, exercise and outside activities are important to a good work-life balance, but in practice, when the pressure is on it can’t always be avoided! Being clear about what your job as a leader is will help you focus on the main tasks you need to get done on any day. Personally, I find that keeping the desk and emails clear (delegating most of these appropriately to others) also helps not to become overwhelmed with an apparent high and unattended workload.
What are a few resources (books, blogs, podcasts, courses etc) you would recommend to someone looking to gain insight into becoming a better leader?
I do not follow any particular blog or personalities. I think it is challenging for someone to write an (auto)biography and to truly convey what it is to be a leader – it is much better to meet them and talk through the nuances of their experiences. This is where the real insights are. I look for peoples’ stories – the narrative of how they deal with everyday situations. Leadership does not just take place at the top and so many organisations succeed through their local leaders, who bring others with them towards the collective goal. I learn from them.